On 19 May this year, the ancient city of Palmyra was about to fall. Jihadist fighters were advancing in pick-up trucks mounted with heavy machine-guns. They were from the group that calls itself Islamic State, also known as Da’esh and Isis.
Khalil Hariri, an archaeology expert who worked at the Syrian city’s museum, could hear the sounds of the fighting getting closer. Grunting and sweating, he and four friends kept on manhandling wooden crates out of the door of the museum and down to three trucks that were parked outside.
Bullets hit the outside of the museum, sounding like enraged insects as they hissed over their heads. Mortars exploded nearby, sending hot pieces of shrapnel fizzing through the air, blowing shards of wood off the trees and turning them into daggers. The men bundled the last crate into the nearest truck. As they jumped in after it, with the vehicles careering out of Museum Square, a bullet hit Khalil. Shrapnel wounded two of the others.
They drove fast down the road to Homs, away from Da’esh, as they call Isis, not even stopping to treat the wounded until they were well clear of Palmyra.
Against all odds and under heavy fire, five middle-aged men had managed to thwart the new barbarians of Islamic State. In scenes reminiscent of the George Clooney film The Monuments Men, about an army unit that tries to save art treasures hidden by the Nazis, Hariri and his friends had rescued Palmyra Museum’s priceless collection of artefacts, the legacy of one of the world’s earliest civilisations. Ten minutes after the men left, Isis fighters entered the museum. The display cases were empty. Nothing was left inside, except big statues that were too heavy to lift without a crane.
Who were the men who saved the treasures of Palmyra? The first, Khalil Hariri, was the museum’s director. When he left in May, his wife stayed behind in the city with his young son. So rapid was the Isis advance that he had to leave them behind and it took nearly a month to get them to safety. When they were reunited, she told him that the jihadists stormed out of the museum and into their house 30 metres away, looking for him and demanding to know what he had done with the collection.
When I met him this month in Damascus, Khalil inhaled his cigarette smoke to the base of his lungs. “I’m going to get a harsh sentence, if they get hold of me,” he said. He knows this because after the jihadists escaped with the few remaining contents of the museum, Isis men took away his brother and two cousins and killed them. It was, he says, a reprisal.
He was helped in his daring plan by his brothers-in-law Mohammed, Walid and Tarik al-Asaad. Their father was Khaled al-Asaad, the 83-year-old keeper of Palmyra’s antiquities, who was publicly murdered by the jihadists last month.
Khaled al-Asaad was born in the city and served as head of the museum and director of antiquities for 40 years, until 2003. Even in retirement, he was still the man whose opinion and judgement about Palmyra and its treasures mattered most. He so admired Zenobia, the 3rd-century warrior queen of Palmyra who rebelled against the Roman empire, that he named his daughter after her. She married Khalil Hariri.
Mohammed al-Asaad was not scared when the bullets began flying as they were struggling with crates of antiquities. “We believed that what we were doing was important,” he told me. The whole family had been brought up by their father to venerate Palmyra, its buildings and its treasures.
In Iraq over the past year, Islamic State has destroyed ancient sites and reduced statues in museums to rubble. Mohammed’s father knew what might be coming when they reached Palmyra.
So, in May, Khaled al-Asaad refused to leave with his sons. They never saw him again. He was beheaded by Isis fighters in a public square; his body was left hanging on a traffic light.
“My father was 83 years old,” Mohammed told me, “and a true believer in the importance of Palmyra. He was deeply attached to it and refused to flee. He believed that it should be protected against any harm from militants or anyone else.”
I sat with Khalil and Mohammed in the garden of the Damascus museum and talked about how and why Isis had killed Khaled. Mohammed had a picture of his father in better times, downloaded from the internet, on his phone. All the family’s physical mementoes were left behind in Palmyra.
Mohammed was Khaled’s right-hand man at the museum for 25 years; he is proud of his father’s bravery, the way he brought them up, and the love he instilled in them all for Palmyra. “The main reason Da’esh executed my father was he refused to swear allegiance to them. They labelled him an apostate – a non-believer. There were stories that they killed him because he knew the secrets of Palmyra and locations of a hidden store of gold. But that’s false . . . they killed him because he was honest and loved Palmyra and was devoted to it and refused to leave it till his last breath.”
Mohammed added: “We were punished by getting chased out of Palmyra. All our possessions were confiscated. All that’s left for us in Palmyra are the ruins.”
The nihilists of Isis revile all the relics of religious life in the Middle East before the Prophet Muhammad, which they regard as a time of heresy. Palmyra was always a prime target for them because it has Syria’s greatest single concentration of buildings and artefacts from that era. The Prophet died in 632AD; by then Palmyra was already an ancient city, with a remarkable body of architecture. It has survived earthquakes and wars, but is now in greater danger than ever.
It was not an accident that Syria’s monuments men were able to empty Palmyra’s museum. It was part of a plan hatched by Syria’s director of antiquities, an engaging, francophone, energetic man in his early fifties called Professor Maamoun Abdulkarim. He had watched with alarm what was happening in Iraq, and realised as Isis advanced that it was a matter of time before it tried to take its drills and sledgehammers to some of Syria’s heritage, too. Until March the plan had been to bring some objects to Damascus and to hide others locally. But after the fall of a strategic provincial capital, Idlib, to Islamist extremists in March, he gave orders to crate up as much as possible and bring it to “safe places” (he won’t say where they are) in and around Damascus.
When wars are going on, while the killing seems endless, and the fear and the desire to run away and not to stop is overwhelming, it can be hard to think about a time when it will all be over. Looking back and thinking about all the wars that went before – in Syria’s case, over roughly 5,000 years or more of history – and knowing
that all wars end eventually is no comfort for the refugees struggling to escape the battle zone, or to get to Europe. But now history is on the front line of the war in Syria. Perhaps history shouldn’t matter any more. I asked Professor Abdulkarim whether it was right to be concerned about ancient relics when so many human beings were being slaughtered.
“I think it’s two different things; we cannot compare them,” he said. “I understand lives are very important because we are people, too, we are living in this crisis, we know we can be killed in this crisis, too. We understand this question. But our job as archaeologists is saving this heritage. And finally
what we are doing to save cultural heritage in Syria. It’s the memory of the Syrian people, it’s the identity of these people. I’m sure the crisis will finish. Life will be better in the future. But all the damage to the cultural heritage will stay for all the generations. That’s why we are thinking about how we can reduce the damage, how we can save all the collections in all the museums in Syria.”
The National Museum of Damascus is opposite the hotel where the UN is based. Journalists stay there as well. Since the war started, I’ve looked down on the museum many times from a balcony, as the thunder of artillery has broken over the city, and flashes and explosions have come from the Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp and all the other urban battlefields. All that time, the museum has been there, battened down, closed for the duration of the war.
Abdulkarim ordered that the most precious tombs and sculptures in the garden should be encased in concrete to protect them. On my visit this month, we walked past the strange concrete cubes to see how he has improved security. We waited while a four-tonne steel door at the main entrance rumbled slowly upwards. The old steel grille lay on the floor, dusty and fragile-looking. Armoured glass has been put into the windows. The display cases here have been emptied, too, and their contents put into safe storage.
In the basement is a stunningly preserved tomb from Palmyra which was moved to the museum in the 1930s. It shows the man who commissioned it at a feast, surrounded by his family and possessions. He reclines like a Roman, propping himself up on his elbow as he eats, but the carving is in the distinct style of Palmyra. The generations that followed his body into the tomb for two centuries are immortalised in lines of sculpted heads.
Isis smashes up statues and ancient sites on video to scare its enemies and excite its supporters. But the archaeologists say it also makes a lot of money selling off attractive, portable pieces to dealers. To pre-empt them, Abdulkarim’s team has rescued 16,000 cuneiform tablets and 15,000 coins, ceramics and other objects from Deir az-Zour, a city where Isis has been fighting the Syrian army and local tribes. The tablets are relics of a writing system developed by the Sumerians in Mesopotamia around 3,500BC. Their makers used reeds to mark clay tablets, creating one of the earliest records of politics, war and trade. Many of the objects are small, easy to hide and to smuggle, and worth a lot of money to collectors.
Syria has monuments women, too. A 25-year-old archaeologist, who does not wish to named, so that she can carry on with her work, led the team that rescued 24,000 ancient objects from Aleppo. The road from the regime-held side of Aleppo to Damascus is dangerous, and in places lonely and almost empty. The Syrian army secured it only last year, and its hold on parts of the road is tenuous. The convoys moved quickly and discreetly in unmarked vehicles because of the risk that they might be robbed. They were high-value targets.
Another young female archaeologist, Mayassa Deeb, is in charge of classifying and repacking all the objects that have been saved so they can be put safely into storage. Each one is photographed, its details uploaded on to a database, then it is wrapped in layers of cotton wool and tissue paper. They are packed into sandwich boxes – the staff have had to improvise – and slotted into packing cases lined with protective foam.
Mayassa is an expert on chariots. She showed me her favourite object: a 5,000-year-old clay model of a chariot that was rescued from Deir az-Zour. If Isis had found it, she said, they would have either smashed it or sold it.
The archaeologists work in an open courtyard in the museum, and sometimes they can hear shells, mostly fired out from Syrian army positions, sometimes coming back in from the rebel-held suburbs. Mayassa loves coming to work, because it helps her forget what is happening outside. “It’s hard because every minute we have a noise and we have an explosion, and some die, it’s hard . . . but we work, and sometimes we don’t remember we have a war. We feel safe here, we don’t think about the war. Some people lose their houses, somebody loses his family, somebody goes abroad. Everybody has problems.”
She looked at the clay chariot, about the size of a couple of matchboxes, decorated with tiny marks that were made five millennia ago. “It’s important for everybody because this isn’t just about the history of Syria – this chariot speaks to us about the history of all the human world. For this reason we must keep it.”
I expected the museum to be full of despair because of the attacks on Palmyra by Isis and the desolation elsewhere in the country. Some of the worst destruction is in Aleppo’s Old City. It was a gem, a tight mass of alleys and khans, as full of entrepreneurs as it must have been a thousand and more years ago. Now it is in ruins.
But Professor Abdulkarim and his team are remarkably positive, horrified by the destruction of the most significant relic in Palmyra, the Baalshamin temple, but delighted about what has been rescued. They are even hopeful, if the stones are not too badly damaged, that they can put the buildings back together after the war. Now they want help from abroad. Foreign governments, the professor said, need to crack down much harder to stop the illegal trade in stolen antiquities.
He also talked about rebuilding the great minaret of the Umayyad Mosque in the Old City of Aleppo, which was flattened earlier in the war. “We’ve told them not to touch the stones,” he told me enthusiastically. “If they’re all there, we can fix it.”
Abdulkarim has 2,500 people working to save Syria’s past, on both sides of the lines. Fourteen of them have been killed so far. “We saved 99 per cent of the collection in the [country’s] museums. It’s good. It’s not just for the good of the government. It’s for the opposition, for the humanity, for all Syria. It is our common identity, our common heritage.”
The National Museum and the remarkable people who work there have created an unexpected oasis, transcending politics and trying to save a vital part of their country for better times. In a country full of despair, it was the most hopeful place I have been in Syria since the war began.
Jeremy Bowen is the BBC’s Middle East editor and the author of “The Arab Uprisings” (Simon & Schuster)
This article appears in the 16 Sep 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn's Civil War